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Why Women Need to Be Mentors (or Find Them)

Many women didn't have mentoring, but it's never too late to get a career sherpa — or act as a guide for someone else

posted by Kerry Hannon, July 6, 2012 More by this author

two asian woman talking in a conference room

Kerry Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.


two asian woman talking in a conference room
Ryan McVay | Lifesize | Thinkstock
Let’s call it chivalry. Most of the working women I talk to who are about my age (51) say mentors have helped them greatly in their careers. But the mentors were generally men.
 
Over the years, I've had a few female bosses offer guidance from time to time. But they never helped me break through any sort of glass ceiling, get promoted, boost my skills or navigate a career change.
 
Boomer Women and Mentors

I’m far from alone. When LinkedIn surveyed nearly 1,000 female professionals last fall, about two-thirds of boomer women said they were not being mentored by women — and never had been.
 
So I was heartened to come across the recent report Paying It Forward Pays Back for Business Leaders, from Catalyst, a nonprofit for women and business. The survey of 742 working men and women who had attended full-time MBA programs found that women were more likely than men to help others advance their careers.

Specifically, 65 percent of the women who had received career development support, aka mentoring, are now developing others at work, compared to just 56 percent of men. What’s more, 73 percent of the women who are developing new talent at work are assisting women, versus only 30 percent of male mentors.

“This finding," the report says, "helps bust the oft-cited 'Queen Bee' myth that women are reluctant to provide career support to other women and may even actively undermine each other.”

(MORE: Why Women Should Join Networking Groups)
 
This is certainly good news. You may be thinking that mentors are just for young employees. But women in their 50s and 60s can benefit from having mentors to support and guide them, too.
 
I feel it’s important for women to have multiple mentors — female and male. They can be especially useful if you work at a male-centric company or in a testosterone-heavy field. A senior woman who has faced discrimination challenges might be your go-to gal, but a man could help open doors to the “boys’ club."
 
Finding a Mentor

To find a mentor, ask your employer’s human resources department if there's a mentoring or sponsorship program. Many big corporations, including General Mills, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Time Warner, have one.
 
If you’re starting your own business, tap into industry associations or SCORE.org, a nonprofit association and resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
 
Cast your scope beyond the workplace, too. You can find mentors in professional associations as well as among neighbors and relatives. (One of my favorite mentors is my big sister.)

(MORE: Does Being a Mom Help or Hurt Your Career?)

Here are the three key questions you should ponder on your quest for a mentor:
 
1. What is my goal? Are you looking for someone who can help you acquire a specific set of skills? Or do you need an experienced Sherpa who can provide ongoing support throughout your long, hard climb to the top? Perhaps you'd be better off with a younger “reverse mentor” like the type described in the Next Avenue blog "Why You Need a Reverse Mentor at Work," who can help sharpen your social media and technology skills.
 
2. How do I ask someone? Don’t be shy. Some 67 percent of the women surveyed by LinkedIn said they had never mentored another professional because “no one had ever asked.” In truth, everyone likes to be asked for advice. So start by requesting guidance on a work or career challenge — it may be the beginning of a fruitful mentoring relationship.
 
3. How can I get the most out of my work with a mentor? Find ways to meet with your mentor regularly, even when you don’t have a pressing problem. Nurture the relationship. Laugh. Remember, too, that when you have a mentor, it’s not all about you. See what you can do for your mentor as well. In essence, try to shape a give-and-take relationship.
 
Be a Mentor Yourself
 
My final thought about mentoring comes from Geraldine Laybourne, the former president of Nickelodeon and co-founder of Oxygen Media.

I recently heard Laybourne give a commencement speech at her alma mater, Vassar College. This is what she said to the graduating class, 60 percent of whom were women: “I urge you to be a mentor yourself and to help open the door for others once you get your foot in. I got my job at Nickelodeon because a Vassar grad 20 years older opened the door for me. She didn’t particularly know me. I don’t know what she saw in me. But she knew that my training as a contrarian thinker would be good for the creation of Nickelodeon.”
 
I always tell my three nieces­, who range in age from 14 to 25, about the importance of helping others and giving back. I’m careful not to be gender-blind, though. It's vital to help other girls and women, but we all need to help one another — women and men.